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Using geomatics to increase the exchange of information between humanitarians – an idea worth looking into
Yann Rebois and Wilfried Tissot

Yves Lacoste said that geography was primarily used to make war. Though this may be the case, information management and different types of maps also allow better coordination and better monitoring, both within and between organisations. Using a holistic approach, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used throughout the project cycle, during the initial assessment, the analysis of zones and the supplying and sharing of information. As a tool, GIS can be applied to humanitarian issues, such as risk management, security, project monitoring, population movements and WASH.

 

  • Geomatics: some useful tools

The word “geomatics” has not yet entered common usage and may not be to everyone’s taste. However, it refers to an area which could provide the humanitarian sector with some very useful tools. The word comes from a combination of “geography” and “informatique” (the French term for “information technology”). It refers to the techniques, tools and methods which make it possible to represent, analyse and integrate geographical data. Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing (the acquisition and analysis of satellite images) and GPS are geomatic tools. Though these tools were developed in the fields of environmental studies and defence in the 70s, other fields quickly began to use them, such as spatial planning, rural development, urbanism, logistics, marketing and, of course, the humanitarian sector.

 

  • The history of geomatics used in the humanitarian sector

In the humanitarian sector, a large number of projects involving thematic mapping, satellite image maps and geographic data bases have been developed in the last 20 years (OCHA, ICRC, UNOSAT…). Nevertheless, most of these projects remain local and focus solely on mapping. They are developed for a particular region or country and are often used by only one organisation. The majority of these projects have provided the information needed and have therefore successfully achieved what they set out to do. However, on the basis of what was said at the GeOnG conference last September, which brought together around fifteen UN agencies and NGOs, there is demand for GIS to be used more, for data to be standardised and for collectively used geographic data bases. Why do these demands exist and what is currently missing from the geomatic field?

 

  • Geomatics is still a specialist area

Despite the fact that so many projects have already been carried out using geomatic techniques, it seems that the field of GISs remains a specialist area. If you use the term “Pcode” (Populated Place code) in a meeting, not many humanitarians will know what it means. Many spreadsheets which are destined, among other things, to be used for maps do not have codes which allow them to be linked to geometry. The use of maps and basic GIS techniques has not yet become standard practice in the humanitarian sector.

How useful would this be? What makes geographic information so essential nowadays? Humanitarian organisations need tools to help them make decisions, which provide them with the spatial representation of a large amount of data (roads, water points, hospitals, location of IDPs, etc.) and tools which allow them to acquire data easily.

In the case of displaced persons camps, a GIS makes it possible to monitor the different phases of a camp’s existence - to plan its design, to calculate the dimensions of facilities, to monitor its progress from when the camp is built to when it is dismantled and to evaluate its environmental impact (see the work done in Kenya by the IRD [1]). A GIS provides a rapid, cartographic overview, which allows the user to assess a situation.

More generally, GIS technology and data bases are information management tools. As such they help to avoid the systematic repetition of a task, which, at least in part, has already been carried out previously.

In recent years, technical progress has meant that it is easier to supply these systems with power. The recent development of open “tag” systems has allowed information to be marked by non-specialists using OSM [2] and Google Map maker [3] for example. This allows basic geographical information to be entered into the GIS without any specialist knowledge on the part of the field operator. As a greater quantity, and in some cases quality, of data is available, this can be entered allowing more comprehensive analysis to be carried out.